I enjoyed the middle-grade novel Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood a few years ago, so I was excited to read her latest book for young readers, Making Friends with Billy Wong. I listened to it on audio and enjoyed this warm novel about friendship, family, and race.
Like Glory Be, Making Friends with Billy Wong is also set in the past in the South. It’s the 1950’s, and Azalea is not happy about leaving her Texas home for the summer to help care for a grandmother she barely knows in tiny Paris Junction, AR. Grandmother Clark has hurt her foot and needs help in the house and caring for her garden. Azalea just wants her to heal up quickly, so she can go back home to get ready for 6th grade.
In a small town like Paris Junction, everyone pitches in when help is needed, so there are several other kids who also come by to help Mrs. Clark with her large garden. Azalea doesn’t feel comfortable meeting or talking to new people, but here she meets a whole bunch: troublemaker Willis DeLoach, who is working in the garden to work off his shoplifting crime; Melinda Bowman, a prissy girl who likes to gossip; and Billy Wong, a Chinese-American boy whose family runs the local grocery store down the street.
At first, Azalea is especially shy about talking to Billy Wong. She’s never met a Chinese person before and thinks he won’t speak English well. She soon learns her assumptions are completely wrong, though. Billy’s family has lived in the United States for generations, and he speaks as well as she does. The two gradually become friends, exploring together, riding bikes, and talking for hours. Billy is also from out-of-town, living with his aunt and uncle so he can attend the regular middle school in the fall because in his (even smaller) hometown across the river, he would have to attend the Colored school, and they don’t have the advanced classes and extracurricular activities Billy wants due to lack of funding. Azalea narrates most of the book, but there are short sections written by Billy, who wants to be a reporter for his new school newspaper. The audio was excellent, with two perfect narrators reading the parts of Azalea and Billy.
As always in her immersive novels, Scattergood tells a warm story of childhood while also addressing important issues of race, poverty, and justice. I think this novel will be eye-opening for many modern children, whose classrooms today include plenty of Asian-American kids, to find out about this particular form of racism that was prevalent so recently. That is, of course, just one thread of this engaging story about friendship and family, as Azalea not only makes a new friend but also gets closer to her grandmother and learns her family history.
224 pages, Scholastic
Book & Audio:
Book & Audio: